Why Driverless Cars Will Make Your Life Perfect

Autonomous cars could one day make your commute safer, faster, and easier on the environment.

National Journal
Alex Brown
Jan. 31, 2014, midnight

Auto ex­perts don’t know when cars will be truly hu­man-proof — but they prom­ise that day is com­ing.

“[We could have] fully autonom­ous vehicles by 2018, 2020,” said Cath­er­ine Mc­Cul­lough, who heads the In­tel­li­gent Car Co­ali­tion. But Audi’s Brad Stertz says cars that can travel start-to-fin­ish without a hu­man hand touch­ing the wheel are “a gen­er­a­tion away at the earli­est.”

Whenev­er they do ar­rive, the people design­ing to­mor­row’s cars prom­ise they’ll be safer, cheap­er, and more ef­fi­cient once they no longer need someone at the helm.

SAFETY

The first thing every driver­less-car ad­voc­ate brings up is the tech­no­logy’s safety be­ne­fits. A full 90 per­cent of ac­ci­dents, they love to say, are a res­ult of hu­man er­ror. Ro­bot cars don’t lose fo­cus or get sleepy, they re­act in mil­li­seconds, and they have eyes in the back of their head. “One of the things com­puters are really good at is do­ing stuff re­pet­it­ively, con­stantly re­peat­ing these scen­ari­os,” Ford’s Greg Stevens said.

And while ro­bot cars today can mon­it­or their sur­round­ings mil­lions of times per second, they’ll be­come even more safe once the tech­no­logy be­comes more wide­spread. Today’s driver­less cars op­er­ate on re­ac­tion and pre­dic­tion. Ford is work­ing with MIT, Stevens said, to “build mod­els for those vehicles around us and those people around us. About where they might move so that we have prob­ab­il­it­ies for where they end up.” The tech­no­logy will learn the cap­ab­il­it­ies of the cars around it, de­tect clues from the way they’re driv­ing, and factor in en­vir­on­ment­al factors like up­com­ing exits.

As more autonom­ous cars hit the road, they will be­gin to com­mu­nic­ate and tell each oth­er where they’re go­ing. Rather than see­ing and pre­dict­ing, cars will be get­ting con­stant up­dates on where sur­round­ing traffic is plan­ning to move. “There will be more of a role in the fu­ture for an­onym­ized, ag­greg­ated data,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “This data will help get every­body a pic­ture of what’s go­ing on.”

Cars will also be­gin shar­ing in­form­a­tion about their sur­round­ings. If, for in­stance, a sink­hole opened up a mile down the road, your car would know that al­most in­stantly, reroute, and hop off the next exit in seconds. “You would have a huge num­ber of cars that could give real-time in­form­a­tion,” Stertz said. “Right now we use prim­it­ive tools for that. You’re get­ting old in­form­a­tion.”

As the cars mon­it­or the road, they’ll also be keep­ing an eye on their oc­cu­pants. If a driver has a heart at­tack or passes out, the car can safely pull to the side and call for help. And if a crash does oc­cur, the car can im­me­di­ately no­ti­fy emer­gency per­son­nel, telling them im­pact speed, loc­a­tion and the con­di­tion of pas­sen­gers.

Fur­ther down the road, autonom­ous cars could help put an end to in­tox­ic­ated driv­ing. Cur­rent rules gen­er­ally re­quire drivers to be be­hind the wheel, alert, and ready to take over at any time. And auto­makers are hes­it­ant to sug­gest their tech­no­logy could al­low people to overim­bibe. But as the tech­no­logy ad­vances, it could one day provide a fail-safe if the driver can’t handle the vehicle safely. “There are some com­plic­ated leg­al ques­tions around it, but I cer­tainly think it’s a pos­sib­il­ity,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

EF­FI­CIENCY

Of course, the first pitch to con­sumers will in­clude the time cur­rently lost to traffic jams and long com­mutes. That could be a thing of the past. While car own­ers won’t be able to nap in the back­seat just yet, car­makers want them to be able to be pro­duct­ive on an oth­er­wise wasted com­mute.

Not only will time spent in the car be more pro­duct­ive, it will de­crease al­to­geth­er. Mc­Cul­lough cited the “ac­cor­di­on ef­fect” — drivers rub­ber­neck­ing, re­act­ing to oth­ers’ er­rat­ic be­ha­vi­or, and com­pound­ing bad situ­ations. Minus the hu­man ele­ment, traffic will flow much more smoothly. Even if 10 per­cent of vehicles are autonom­ous, she said, traffic will im­prove drastic­ally.

As cars get bet­ter at hand­ling traffic situ­ations, many think they’ll be­gin to speed up as well. Rais­ing speed lim­its “de­pends on the politi­cians,” Stertz said, “but i think it’s a le­git­im­ate top­ic for dis­cus­sion…. It’s one of the things that’s worth reex­amin­ing when the cars are able to show they can help with the safety is­sue.”

After your com­mute through traffic is taken care of, your car will be able to handle park­ing as well, drop­ping you off at the front of your of­fice — or, say, a sports sta­di­um — then driv­ing off to find a park­ing spot on its own. All in all, “they’re go­ing to move people more quickly from one place to an­oth­er,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

SAV­INGS

The more su­per-safe cars take the road, the easi­er it will be for city plan­ners. Autonom­ous vehicles, at least ac­cord­ing to one study, will be able to safely drive just feet from each oth­er, quad­rupling high­way ca­pa­city. “It would make it easi­er on mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies to plan for and pay for road in­fra­struc­ture,” Mc­Cul­lough said.

The sav­ings won’t just be lim­ited to loc­al gov­ern­ments. As cars take more ef­fi­cient routes and spend less time id­ling in traffic, their own­ers will cut back on their fuel con­sump­tion. “Smooth­er traffic flows and less time stuck in traffic [res­ult in] sav­ings for the driver,” Stertz said.

That’s also good for the en­vir­on­ment. “The amount of fuel that can be saved, the amount of car­bon emis­sions that can be saved … I think we are be­gin­ning to see that,” Mc­Cul­lough said. “The en­vir­on­ment­al aware­ness is be­gin­ning to grow.”

We don’t know just when all of these be­ne­fits will be real­ized. Some of them may come well be­fore oth­ers. And a lot of it will de­pend on gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions. But auto­makers em­phas­ize that their autonom­ous cars won’t hit the road un­til they’re ready to deal with all as­pects of driv­ing. “What our en­gin­eers tell us is that these sys­tems “¦ have to be fool­proof,” said BMW’s Dave Buch­ko. “They have to be able to handle any situ­ation.”

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